The fact that I can't remember the last time I saw Kurt Van der Dussen didn't lesson the impact when I read in the Herald-Times last week of his death. I knew enough about his condition to not be shocked, but still. As odd as this may sound to those who know the personalities, Kurt was a mentor and a role model to me. He was also a great Bloomington character who will never be replaced.
Kurt died June 9 at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, where he had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer. He was 59. H-T Editor Bob Zaltsberg wrote an outstanding account of Kurt as a person and journalist on Wednesday's editorial page, as did the news staff in a story that quoted many of his long-time sources in town.
I was exposed to Kurt's unique brand of journalism from the day I started at the H-T in 1985, fresh out of grad school and brimming with journalistic ideals. My first beat at the paper was county government, which Kurt had covered for eight years. I literally followed in his footsteps.
"More than anything else, Kurt Van der Dussen was an original."
I was drawn to the power of the journalistic pen to effect change and knew when I entered the J school that I wanted to practice the art of advocacy journalism. But I had also been schooled in the principles of objective, fair and balanced journalism and figured I had to keep that impulse at bay when I accepted my first reporting job at a daily newspaper.
But, to borrow a term from Zaltsberg's column, Kurt "scoffed" at the notion that journalists should keep a distance from their subjects and sources. To the contrary, a journalist's job is to seek the truth and then tell what he or she learns about it. Doing that demands the writer be immersed in their subjects and sources. That's how Kurt did it, and so have I. We found different truths in our pursuits, but that's how journalism in a democracy is supposed to work.
Kurt and I regularly covered the same issues, and I enjoyed presenting opposing truths to his in the H-T and, later, in the Bloomington Independent and The Bloomington Alternative.
And, since the H-T brain trust allowed Kurt to write stories and editorials about the same subjects, sometimes on the same day, I quickly figured out that it was possible to practice advocacy journalism in a newsroom, or at least in that one. Kurt referred to himself as the Fourth Commissioner in county government. He reveled in his influence over county government.
"Kurt 'scoffed' at the notion that journalists should keep a distance from their subjects and sources."
Anyone who ever saw Kurt cover a meeting will understand the next lesson I learned from him. A reporter doesn't have to be a fly on the wall with a notepad at official government meetings. Whether it was a county plan commission meeting or a tension-filled speech in the Indiana General Assembly, Kurt was all over the place, asking questions and/or correcting those running the particular events.
He sat at the staff tables during county government meetings so he had maximum access to whatever information passed before whatever body was in session. I recall sitting in a packed media gallery at the Legislature while an important State Rep expounded to a full chamber just before an important vote. Kurt suddenly appeared in a door to the side of the podium and walked in front of the speaker on his way to the desk of another Representative, where he knelt down to ask or say whatever was on his mind.
And as one who frequently used Kurt's work for background, I can testify that, at least in the days when the H-T invested resources in public affairs reporting, Kurt was a meticulous, thorough and insightful reporter. In Kurt's footsteps, understanding county government was a snap.
"Kurt also had an ability to hold his ground in the face of staunch opposition and criticism."
I recently searched the H-T archives to learn when the State of Indiana first proposed the Interstate 69 highway. Kurt wrote the first stories on it 20 years ago next month, and in his work I found every detail I needed for the context I sought. In what may be the ultimate praise for a newspaper reporter, I didn't have a single question left when I read the stories he wrote about the proposed Southwest Indiana Highway.
Kurt also had an ability to hold his ground in the face of staunch opposition and criticism. While his editorials at the H-T reflected the positions of its publisher, Kurt often found himself the lone voice in newsroom debates. He took it in stride. After I once skewered one of his H-T editorials after I started the The Bloomington Alternative in 2002, Kurt responded in a multiple e-mail give-and-take and ended the correspondence with, "Vive la difference."
More than anything else, Kurt Van der Dussen was an original, and the Bloomington community will never the same without him. And even though I hadn't seen him in years, the many accounts I've received on life at the H-T suggest he lived his last, troubled years at peace with himself and his fate. And that does lessen the impact of his death. A little bit.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.